Your Daily Read: Death and Then Some Part 6
Part 6 and the conclusion to — Death and Then Some.
In case some of you folks are late to this as I am late in putting up this final installment. I will run down a brief recap. Many years ago, my first agent was a nice and likeable fellow working out of a crappy storefront in the heart of Hollywood. Hal Guthu got me gigs on Playboy Television and bit parts in movies liked “Zapped!” and “My Tutor”. He was found dead (some say it was murder) but dead nevertheless. Join if you dare in finding out what really happened to Hal and his pet bird.
Death and Then Some… Part 6
“Are they hard to find?”
“No. I’ve got more girls in the pipeline than I can get to right now.”
Is it true he had a clash with Hal over client-poaching?
“What happened was, Hal and I knew a lot of the same people, some of them were people that I had met through Hal. So he understandably had a right to be upset about that.” Then he qualifies the denial. “But some of his girls, a lot of his girls, would come to me and say, ‘Look, we love Hal, but the guy hasn’t got me a job in four months, and I need the work.’”
“Did he file some kind of complaint against you at the Labor Board or anything like that?”
“He may have. I don’t know that for a fact, but I had a per- son who was in town from the East Coast who had gone to see Hal, and what Hal didn’t realize was that this person had also been in contact with me, and I found out from this person that Hal had said that I was under investigation by the FBI.”
“And that the LAPD was looking into me. And some stuff that was really outlandish.”
“So . . . you didn’t like get pissed off and go down and kill him or anything, did you?”
“No,” he says, and laughs. “No, I didn’t.”
Finally I meet up with Carol Hargraves, the C in CHN. She lives an hour south of Los Angeles in the kind of upscale beach town with million-dollar ranch houses and housewives who look like aging actresses. She’s waiting for me at an oceanfront coffee shop and she’s elegant with tossed red hair and a black velvet dress and one of those baggy thick sweaters that hangs around the neck like a sharpei dog. She has a tiny diamond stud in her nose. “There are so many stories,” she says. “Everybody wants to romance this. In fact, one of the big speculations at first, that it was a land grab — somebody wanted the building from him. But he didn’t own the building.”
Carol met Hal in 1965, when she was twenty years old and a sportswear buyer at Bullocks. Hal was mostly a photographer and cameraman then, an attractive forty-two-year-old man who seemed very kind and protective. He helped her put together a fashion model portfolio and they became lovers. They lived together in Hollywood and had two matching black Lincoln Continentals that he kept spotless. They both loved exotic animals, and his first gift to her was a gibbon, “the smallest of the great apes.” They found a snake in the desert and added that to their menagerie, then a great horned owl, two Malaysian clawless otters, and some “incidental lizards.” One day they decided to expand the operation into a talent agency. The N in CHN was their other partner, a young guy from Brooklyn named Nick, a wannabe photographer who disappeared after a few months and turned up dead from a gunshot in Vegas in ’89.
She knew that Hal came from a very religious family in Oregon, that he had been a photographer up in San Francisco, that he was married back in the fifties but never had any kids of his own. And he had original pictures of Marilyn Monroe. Beyond that he was incredibly private. Mostly they drove out to the desert or to San Francisco and San Diego, hitting flea markets and antique stores to stock up his prop rooms. He never socialized and had no close friends. They hadn’t even owned a telephone.
What about his hair? Red or black? “He had dark brown hair.” “Did he dye it?” “He had — a solid ego. He kept his body weight down. You could always count on his clean shirt — white shirt — with the top two buttons open. Always.”
“Did he have cancer?”
“Eight years ago, he told me he had a growth in the back of his neck. That was as much explanation as I got.”
And the girls, did he truly care for them? Was he the grand- father he seemed to be?
“I’m trying to put into some sense of order how he really felt about the models, and the business,” she says. “And it’s really hard, because he — he had disregard for most people? He did not have disregard, but he did not have a lot of regard? And I think he saw it strictly as a business, in that, for those girls that wanted to do it, it was OK. I think he was emotionally removed.”
Hal kept a distance from her, too. Any time she got too close, the wall came down. He used to tell her that she was looking to him as a father figure. He wouldn’t even let her take a picture of him, always said the same thing — he was behind the camera, not in front of it.
The only thing she can figure is that it was because of his deformity.
“Yes,” she says. “They were crushed in an airplane accident.”
Then she stops. That’s not really true, she says. Actually, it was a common birth defect. She doesn’t want to use the actual word out of respect for him. “He used to say it was a plane crash, because he was ashamed.”
I ask her straight out, what’s her opinion: Murder or suicide?
“You know, there are so many unanswered questions . . . the car being one of them. The safe was opened and empty. All his books were burned. The woman he was dating. He had shoots set up for Monday. He was to meet with my son on Tuesday and he was going to teach him about lighting.” She goes on: he didn’t like guns and smoke, and would a guy who ate the same breakfast cereal every morning for thirty years be the kind of guy who took himself out in a blaze of destruction?
And then there’s the bird. When he thought he had cancer, he asked her to take care of Max if he died.
“What about the suicide note?”
“To me it didn’t sound like Hal. It didn’t sound the way he would speak. Hal was not a whiner, and the note was very whiny. That he had cancer and got to the point where he had a very short time to live. He didn’t say anything about Max. So I find it difficult to believe that he wrote that. To me, it looked like somebody was trying to copy his handwriting.”
“What about the girlfriend? Is it possible that it’s like the plane crash, he’s giving himself a girlfriend he doesn’t really have?”
She says that Hal started changing about two years ago, he was getting older, he was in bad health. “He was becoming a sweet old man, that told a lot of sweet old stories. And I think some of them were about himself.”
That’s why she can’t be sure. Maybe he just reached a point where the pain was too much and he had to control it somehow. “He had controlled his life, all his life. He did things his way. So possibly it was his way of saying, ‘I’m out of here, and I’m takin’ all my stuff with me.’”
Now dim the lights, please. Put a little Theremin on the soundtrack. And here’s Hal Guthu himself, alive and well and sitting behind his desk in his storefront office just as he has five days a week for the last thirty years. He’ll be dead in nine months, but for now he’s still a natty little man with black- framed glasses and a white shirt, the type who takes his time and does things right and takes satisfaction in it. Is he surprised that I don’t have a business card? Not a bit. He slips a piece of paper across the desk and tells me to write out my name and address. A big parrot stands on the edge of the desk, clicking its toenails on the tattered wood. I slide the card back and Hal takes out the famous books, big black ring binders filled with pictures of pretty girls who are naked or almost naked, four or five poses to a page. I sit there flipping pages and whenever I pause, Hal sup- plies a comment. “I’ll be honest with you, she’s ugly as hell in person.” Or, “she won’t do open leg.” I ask him why he’s so adamant about not doing hardcore and this is what he says: “I have a philosophy about that. I’ll degrade women up to a point, and no more.”
On the flip side, Hal seems to have very little respect for models who won’t do nudity at all. “They’re afraid it will hurt their career,” he says dismissively. “I tell them every star in the world has done it.”
Hal transforms when the phone rings. “You’re working?” he says, a big grin on his face. “Oh you sweetheart, that’s terrific!”
It’s an ex-model calling to say she landed on her feet. He writes down her number and tells her to keep in touch.
A few days after my interview with Carol Hargraves, the cops find the bird dead of smoke inhalation in the prop room and file Hal’s death away as a suicide. But nobody is convinced by this explanation. They keep on whispering about the Russian mafia and the Lost Pictures of Marilyn and stolen jewels and jealous boyfriends, insisting the murder will never be solved. “It’s almost like the stories that you try to tell somehow come true.” After all, the cops still can’t find his house, and the girlfriend never turned up. “Hollywood is full of these mysterious deaths and mysterious doings,” says one old rival. “It’s almost like the stories that you try to tell somehow come true.” He says it with a certain relish.
A few weeks later, forty of Hal’s friends gather in Griffith Park in front of an old zoo habitat, showgirls and old Hollywood sports in Gucci loafers and solitary photographers of the kind who have extensive collections of vintage glamour photography. It’s peaceful and cool here among the piebald eucalyptus trees. The freeway hum feels almost meditative. There’s a sign-up sheet for models who want to carry on Hal’s work, and a man with a hundred live doves in white wicker boxes. A leg fetish videographer named Bob is saying that it doesn’t mean anything that the safe was always open. “He kept props in there, like costume jewelry, that’s all.” Stacy Burke says hi to Caroline Koh.
“Don’t you remember?” Stacy answers. “We did that bondage video together. In the cage.” Someone else says that maybe suicide was Hal’s way of adding a cloud of mystery, of grasping a bit of immortality. “He did have the devil in his spir- it. He loved a good joke. And maybe it was his way of just kind of thumbing his nose. Getting the last laugh. And people would never know for sure.”
Then a man hands out candles, and a succession of friends and colleagues tell stories about Hal. When the words are all said, a young woman sings a pretty song about finding peace with the angels and a man opens the wicker boxes and the doves fly straight out over our heads, wings whirring in blurry white circles, urgent and strong, beating hard for home.
As the crowd breaks up, Mark, the man who anonymously fingered Cam Smith as Hal’s murderer, falls in with Caroline, the blonde Asian. “I’ve been in production lately,” he says, “but now with Hal gone, I’ve gotta go back into the modeling business full-time.”
She asks, “Is it hardcore?”
“No hardcore,” he says, “just the way Hal trained me twenty years ago.”
Video Bob lingers with Stacy Burke, talking intently about something that involves high heels and seamed stockings. “Think about what you want,” he says.
Her answer gets lost in the freeway noise.
I am sitting at a nearly deserted sushi bar in the middle of Studio City, reading twenty rotten-good pages set in Esquire Magazine format and growing pissed. “You are telling me the bird died in the prop room? Not possible. Hal loved that bird! He couldn’t have killed Max!” John, I say, “did you speak to the cops who actually saw Hal and Max?”
“Jewel, you are getting upset, I see.”
“No shit! I just read twenty pages of a story about my first agent here in Hollywood and this is it? All this reading — for this ending? No disgruntled babe with a hacksaw? No big-bosomed bangi warrior chick? No, movie star turned Baby Jane wanna-be holding a bloody wheelchair? Hal killed himself?” I say incredulously. “I don’t buy it. Hal would never have let anything happen to the bird. He loved that bird!” For the billionth time, I found myself repeating.
“What I have heard.” My companion and payer of the sushi check, nodded his head sadly, “That’s what the police say.”
“John…” I say, popping a few green edamame into my mouth “the police say, the bird died in the prop room. But the fire started in the prop room and the back dressing room — doesn’t make sense. Hal never had Max chained to his bird stand and besides if the fire started in the back.. the bird would have walked to the front office! For crying out loud, the bird got the mail from the mail slot in the front door! The bird wasn’t stupid!”
Trying to make me feel better, John soothes, “I like the Shannon Tweed article you wrote.”
I stare at John and after what seems like an eternity, “I don’t like how you phrased Hal as a ‘Small-Timer'”.
“What would you call him?”
I play with my sushi some more, “He was my friend. He fed me when I had no money. He would give me clothes to wear. He always… took his vitamins.” I trail off as if somehow there was an answer to his death in the word vitamin, “I feel a loss… I feel… sadness. I think to myself, I must not have known him that well if I didn’t see this coming…”
“No one ever really knows anyone. That is what I am finding out writing this book about my dad being in the CIA.”
I am taken aback —
“Your dad was in the CIA? Like, spy, shit? Wow. But… isn’t it kind of boring writing about your dad being in the CIA? I mean you are like writing a memoir of something that… you don’t have first hand knowledge of other than the dude being your dad. It’s not like you have the bomb codes — now if you had the bomb codes — that would be interesting.” John stares at me for a long moment. I can tell he is trying to figure out what I just said and it’s meaning. “Ya know, John, I like you. Don’t like this title you have for this Esquire piece, ‘Death of a Small-Timer’. I prefer ‘Death and Then Some’… cause, Hal died, which is death… and then some bird died… and that’s how you get the ‘and Then Some’, no what I mean?” I can tell John doesn’t but that’s okay — He’s my friend.
“You can be real dingy, Jewel”.
I smile, “I can be real smart, too, like Stephen Hawking’s little sister only with tits, smart! Did I ever tell you the time I was hired to be a sushi platter at a big Hollywood party? They hired me to lay topless with a bunch of sushi displayed on my stomach. Got a lot of good tips with that job…” I rattled on about the proper etiquette of eating sushi while being topless and how for John’s next Esquire article he must checkout the Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Nevada where, John “where’s my dick” Bobbitt, was the feature draw over the girl providers and either way, I assure John, there is a story at the Bunny Ranch.
We snapped a few pictures and John gives me a hug, “I will think about it, Jewel. I will call you if I end up writing about ranch life in Nevada. Right now, I am writing ‘My Father The Spy’.” I tease him some more about how boring that sounds and watch with sadness as John gets into his car.
“So… see you next article?”
John hugs me one last time as I watch him, the man, the writer, my very dear friend turn left onto Ventura Boulevard. I stand at the corner of Laurel and Ventura watching until the headlights fade among the traffic. Watching, remembering, that first day I met John at the Premiere Magazine office in West Los Angeles. How ten years earlier, I had begged, and even threw myself across his desk promising him, he could interview me naked! If he would just write about me and my crappy B- Movie career. I promise him, I would make his pen float like a butterfly… and if it didn’t? At least he would see me naked.
I miss my friend, John. He really needs to take me to sushi some day soon…